Birder's Journal: Looking At a Handy New Guide

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Birders at all levels of experience will find nuggets of value.

The section on field skills, for example, contains this advice: "Watch the edges of a flock and pay special attention to outlying birds or those that act differently; these may be different species."

Later in the same section, Sibley explains how flock movements indicate the presence of a hawk: "Many small birds react to an aerial predator by forming a tight flock and swerving back and forth around it, not allowing it to get above them or to single out one member of the flock."

On the challenges of birding, Sibley commiserates: "Identification is like a matching game with a time limit," he says. "On one side you have images in a book or in your head, and on the other side you have a bunch of flitting, skulking birds."

And on "pishing"—trying to attract birds by imitating their alarm calls—he mildly scolds: "Pishing can be overdone."

The chapter on the challenges of bird identification explains how to differentiate similar species, such as the downy and the hairy woodpecker. It also touches on identifying birds by their "jizz," birding parlance for the unique impression a species conveys, even when glimpsed for a fraction of a second.

Tricks of Appearance

For me, Sibley's notes on misidentification are the most interesting.

He explains how incorrect assumptions and a form of peer pressure led him and other experienced birders initially to misidentify New Jersey's first record of a calliope hummingbird. A similar "group hysteria," he adds, gripped hundreds of birders in California, who for days mistakenly took a skylark for a Smith's longspur.

If at times you've puzzled over birds you know well, Sibley will help you see why that's only natural.

A high-contrast background makes a bird appear larger. So does fog. In dim light, however, a bird appears smaller.

Lighting conditions, reflective surfaces, and backgrounds influence the intensity of a bird's colors. As they adjust to changes in temperature and wind speed, birds alter their posture, and by flexing muscles at the feather bases, they puff or flatten their plumage.

Such adjustments can seem to affect not only a bird's size, but also its proportions and color patterns.

Sibley covers flight behavior, vocalizations, and feathers, devoting more pages to feathers—their structure, growth, and arrangement, and how they shape and pattern a bird—than to any other topic. The chapter on molt is difficult but reasonably short, so I read it twice for a better grasp of the somewhat esoteric Humphrey-Parkes system of molts, which Sibley deems essential to an understanding of age and plumage variation.

The cover of Sibley's Birding Basics describes it as a book that will tell you how to identify birds. That's fair enough, but as Sibley writes in the first chapter, "The methods and clues I put forth will be meaningful only after you have had some personal experience with them. The book covers some of the larger concepts; refining the ideas and filling in the details is up to the individual."

In other words, read the book and let the advice percolate. Then grab your binoculars and get out in the field.

Robert Winkler's book of essays on his adventures with birds of the "suburban wilderness" will be published in 2003 by National Geographic Books.

Recent "Birder's Journal" Stories from Robert Winkler:
Birder's Journal: A Morning With Migrants
Birder's Journal: This Warbler Is a Master of Deception Birder's Journal: Seduced by Dueling Thrushes
Birders Journal: Attack of the Flying Goshawk

Recent Bird Stories by National Geographic News:
Do Some Birds Cheat to Avoid Inbreeding?
Water-Diversion Plan Threatens California's Salton Sea

National Geographic Bird Resources:
Bald Eagles: Come Back From the Brink
Experience the Sights and Sounds of Eagles

Nationalgeographic.com Bird-Watching Sites:
Boston Area
Chicago Area
Florida Keys Area
Maine's Acadia National Park
Mount Rainier
New Orleans Area
New York City Area
North Carolina's Outer Banks
Philadelphia Area
Portland Area
Rocky Mountain National Park
Salt Lake City Area
San Francisco Area
Santa Fe Area
South Dakota's Black Hills
Utah
Washington's Olympic National Park
Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park
Yellowstone National Park
Yosemite National Park

From the National Geographic Store:
Guide to North American Birds
Portable Birdsong Identifier
Birder's Journal
Songbirds Puzzle

Additional Information from Related Web Sites:
American Bird Conservancy
Fish and Wildlife Service Bird Web Site
National Audubon Society
Environmental Protection Agency: Bird Conservation

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